Friday, August 24, 2012

Impressions of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

As an ardent PC gamer, I've long lamented the fact that the Souls series remained exclusive to the console boxes. When I'd heard that Atlus were planning to take down the servers for Demon's Souls, I bought a PS3 just so I could have a chance to play Demon's Souls before its final curtain call. I haven't done much with the console since. So when I'd heard that Bandai Namco were planning to release a PC port of Dark Souls, I was very excited.

As news poured in that it was going to be a straight port with no fancification for the PC, my hopes dwindled to reserved skepticism. Over 100,000 PC gamers signed a petition asking for a port, but I don't think this is exactly what anyone had in mind. I've played about eight hours of Dark Souls now, and I can confirm that it is a rather rubbish port. If not for the new content, the Steam integration, and the fan-made resolution patch, I would almost recommend against the PC version. As for the game itself, well, I have a few opinions on that, too. My thoughts await after the jump.

First things first: the PC controls are pretty bad. Developer From Software stated long ago that the PC version was just going to be a straight port and made it clear that control pads were recommended for optimal gameplay. That's all fine and dandy, but if you're going to sell a product designed to run on a certain platform, you really need to make sure the controls are at least functional on the platform's native control scheme. I always figured keyboard and mouse controls would be a bit clunky or awkward for this game, but these are just so unwieldy that you pretty much need a controller to play this game smoothly.

The game controls with your fairly standard WASD movement keys and mouse-controlled camera. Where it falls apart is in the camera control, because mouse movements feel completely unnatural. Slow movements with the mouse cause the camera to move fast and jittery, and fast movements cause the camera to move slowly. This is the opposite of how cameras are supposed to be handled. It's just not easy to look around with any controlled precision.

Left click performs a regular attack and right-click performs a heavy attack. Again, this is pretty standard, but problems crop up trying to perform kick attacks and jump attacks. To perform either of these, you're supposed to simultaneously tap forward on your movement key while left or right clicking; it just doesn't work properly, nine times out of ten resulting in normal sword swings. This is problematic because some enemies and tactics require that forward-combo, and if you can't perform them reliably you're shamelessly out of luck. If you abandon the mouse altogether and control the game entirely from the keyboard, the camera actually handles better and you can perform those special combos consistently, but that's not an ideal solution.

Thanks for the tip, tutorial. You're real helpful.

Next up is the fact that the in-game tutorial is entirely worthless because every single control prompt is for an xbox controller. "Press Right Bumper to attack. Use right stick to move camera." Even if you don't have a controller plugged in, this is what shows up. You're forced to open the options menu and manually look-up all the controls, but none of the logical buttons bring up the menu. By default, you have to press the End key to access the menu -- who would ever think to use that button? In my case, I was able to play the game on my PS3 controller using the MotioninJoy drivers, and I'd already played Demon's Souls so I knew how everything worked; if you're playing for the first time and trying to figure out the keyboard and mouse controls I imagine it's going to be extremely clunky.

Then there are the graphics. I'm certainly no graphics whore, but these graphics are almost an eyesore to me. The game is stuck in 720p -- even if you set your in-game resolution to 1080p, it's going to stay 720p and stretch to fit the screen. Consequently, everything looks kind of blurry and grainy, and that's besides the fact that the textures are already relatively low-res. Add to that a framerate cap of 30 which is apt to dip down to the 15-20 range at times and you get a game with beautiful art direction that's just not as good as it ought to be. I'm not exactly complaining, but the fan-made resolution fix is pretty much essential to get the game looking crisp and pleasant.

Besides that, the Prepare to Die Edition seems to be exactly the same as the console versions, just with some new bosses and areas which I've not yet explored (it's all new to me anyway, so I can't really comment on that stuff either way). And on top of that, it seems to be pretty much the same game as Demon's Souls, just in a new setting with new areas to explore and new enemies to vanquish. The main difference is that Dark Souls follows a loosely Metroidvania-style open-world formula, rather than the Super Mario Bros style of self-contained "levels" you teleported in and out of in Demon's Souls.

Firelink Shrine, the starting hub of Dark Souls

So far I'm not sold on the open-world formula. I always liked that Demon's Souls was broken down into specific levels, because they served as manageable doses to promote your gameplay. It was reassuring knowing that you'd go into a level planning to fight your way to the boss and then move on to the next one, and that rhythm of completing levels gave you some nice stopping points and provided an overall sense of structure to how you could go about completing the game. The Nexus, meanwhile, was a convenient hub that had almost everything you needed in one central location.

In Dark Souls, there's a lot more backtracking. Shotcuts open up that connect different regions to one another, but there's no fast-travel system that I know of, so if you need to visit a merchant, or you reach a boss you can't beat and decide you need to go explore somewhere else, you inevitably have to backtrack through a bunch of eternally-respawning enemies. And if you're not exactly sure where you're going, then you're in for some extra tedious legwork as you try to find your way. On the other hand, it's nice that the maps are a little more complex, which makes them more rewarding to explore, but I would've preferred a better hub system.

Finally, the other thing I've noticed about Dark Souls is that it seems much harder than Demon's Souls, and not in a good way. Bear in mind that I didn't think Demon's Souls was all that difficult -- I was able to beat every boss (except for two) on my very first try and was able to get through most areas safely and effectively by taking my time and being observant. It challenging and unforgiving, but never crossed the line of delivering cheap, unfair deaths. Every time I died (which was relatively rare) it was because of an obvious mistake on my part that I was immediately able to address, thus learning and improving.

Pretty scenery. Shame it's upscaled 720p.

Dark Souls, by contrast, feels like From Software looked at the difficulty in Demon's Souls and said "How can we make this harder?" Answer: by imposing a bunch of extra restrictions on the player, putting more enemies in really annoying positions, and giving enemies more backstab and riposte abilities. In general, enemy behavior in Dark Souls feels more unpredictable, and I find myself dying far more frequently due to factors that are almost completely beyond my control.

In one situation I was fighting my way through a linear area and encountered a large horde of enemies. I got their attention and started backtracking, planning to lure them away and pick them off one-by-one, and then got killed immediately by stuff that came from behind me -- from the path I'd just cleared. They just dropped in from out of nowhere and pinned me between a whole bunch of enemies. When I returned to that area, I anticipated the mysterious backspawn, but they didn't show up. As far as I'm concerned, it was a random, unpredictable death that had no apparent rhyme or reason.

The Capra Demon is the perfect example of what I mean with the Dark Souls difficulty being a little unfair and intentionally frustrating. He's a very tough boss, not because of the strategy or the technique necessary to take him down -- he's actually quite simple with the right tricks -- but because of all the artificial impositions. You fight him in a very cramped space which limits your ability to dodge or heal because you have nowhere to run, and you frequently get caught on pieces of the environment. Because the area is so cramped, the camera's almost constantly pressed up against a wall preventing you from actually seeing your full surroundings.

Mitch and James fighting the Capra Demon

The Capra Demon is a fairly big foe with rather large swords that can hit you from the other side of the room with a leaping attack (which does insane damage), and he takes up so much space that you can't really navigate around him anyway. To make matters worse, he's got two dogs with him that move very quickly and are sometimes very difficult to hit, providing the perfect nuisance to get you hit-stunned long enough for the Capra Demon to guillotine you with his swords, or to trap you against a piece of environment and prevent you from moving. It's a deliberately tedious, frustrating sort of challenge that has about as much design sophistication as making you do it with one hand tied behind your back.

As such, the running theme in making Dark Souls more challenging is to impose more restrictions on the player. You can't farm or stockpile healing items anymore -- instead you're given a limited amount and have to make it last until the next checkpoint. Likewise, magic spells and miracles are now based on a charge system that only lets you cast each spell a certain number of times before making it to the next check point -- no more regenerating mana and casting to your heart's desire. In a way, these are welcome tweaks because it was sometimes a little too easy to farm recovery items in Demon's Souls, but this solution feels like an artificially inflated difficulty to me, like they're making it harder by removing all of your tools. Like telling you to cut the grass and then handing you a pair of scissors.

So my first eight hours with Dark Souls have been pretty frustrating, between dealing with the shoddy port job and dying far more often than I ever died in Demon's Souls. If you're thinking about getting it, there's ultimately more satisfaction than frustration, and there's really not much else like it. So far, though, I prefer Demon's Souls. Also, I think it's absolute horse manure that you have to sit through the loading splash images for Bandai Namco, From Software, and Havok in order to quit the game. That's absolutely inexcusable.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing how bad ports can be. Have you even played/seen/heard about the Resident Evil 4 port. It did not even have mouse support (you aimed with wasd) or a way to exit the game.